Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Confessions of Saint Augustine. The Influence of Self-Loathing.

Augustine of Hippo lived during a time of exceptional upheaval. It was the beginning of the Dark Ages, when the christianized Roman Empire was crumbling. His Confessions was written between 397 and 398 AD, 13 years prior to the sack of the capitol by the Visigoths. Perhaps this historical situation is responsible for the fervid tone of his philosophy, although truthfully, there are zealots in every age.

Among rational, educated people, it is easy to explain this early Christian philosopher as a relic of a darkly superstitious and insecure time. We can understand his cultural influences, and accept his limitations with the same charity that we understand Aristotle’s theory of Spontaneous Generation. But unlike Spontaneous Generation, Augustine’s ideas are taken seriously today. Many theologians see him as the seminal Christian Philosopher.  Many Catholic and non-Catholic lay people rapturize his quotes. The Dictionary of Scientific Biography includes him in what can be magnanimously described as an attempt to be open-minded. My copy of The Confessions gushes from its cover that this is “The greatest spiritual autobiography of all time.”

Unfortunately, Augustine comes with the emotional baggage of a damaged girlfriend who cuts. He is full of loathing and abuse towards himself. He calls himself “dust and ashes” (Augustine, p. 46). He says things like “I stank in [God’s] eyes” (Augustine, p. 65). With Flagellant masochism, Augustine describes his sin as if he is “bound about with painful chains of iron…scourged by burning rods of jealousy” (Augustine, p. 77). In response to the natural desires of adolescence, he says “clouds arose from the slimy desires of the flesh” (Augustine, p. 65).  The saint’s descriptions are so graphic, sensual and laced with bondage and discipline, that he makes a fetish of his self-hatred and writhes in an ecstasy of suffering and self-punishment for his humanness.

And what is his solution to the aforementioned sinfulness? More self-torture: God “scourged me with heavy punishments, but nothing in proportion to my faults” (Augustine, p. 80). God “stood me face to face with myself, so that I might see how foul I was, how deformed and defiled, how covered with stains and sores” (Augustine, p. 193). Apparently Augustine’s particular kink requires verbal abuse while he’s being whipped.

Even after a decade in God’s Pleasure Dungeon, and numerous renunciations that would make the most fanatic Ascetic weep, Augustine is still not good enough. He has tossed the woman (and child she bore him) out of his house and become celibate. He has given-up lucrative academic posts to pursue his warped truth. He lives with the scrubbed cleanliness of laundry beaten on rocks. But he needs a final push towards holiness. So what is his method? More self-torture:  “I upbraided myself much more bitterly than ever before. I twisted and turned in my chain” (Augustine, p. 199). God, ever the obliging dominatrix, “redoubled the scourges of fear and shame” (Augustine, p. 200). With this increased, punishing stimulation, Augustine is finally urged to let go in a climax of unity with the Divine.

I wish I could say that Augustine learned to love himself once he’d reached his goal. But this abused child of God was never good enough. He continues his celibacy and avoids physical pleasure. He even goes as far as avoiding pleasing fragrances and shutting-out pleasant melodies in church music (Augustine, p. 261). All senses are potential traps that can haul one back into sin. Concerning the sense of taste, he says “I…come to take food just as I take medicine” (Augustine, p. 258). For the rest of his life, Augustine is vigilant against the joys of the physical world.

It may interest free-thinking people to know what kinds of things are considered sins by this revered figure. In addition to the expected Seven Deadlies and violations of the Ten Commandments, Augustine includes Theater. Contact with The Stage, in Augustine’s colorfully graphic style, results in being “infected with loathsome sores” (Augustine, p. 78). Someone should have told him that the sores only occur if you have sex with the actors. As usual, knowledge is a bad thing, leading to the unfortunate consequences of thinking and questioning for one’s self (always a sin in the face of an authority that benefits from ignorance.) Knowledge leads away from God, “into the depths of apostasy and into the deceitful service of demons” (Augustine, p. 80). Free Will naturally follows: “the free will’s decision is the cause of our doing evil” (Augustine, p. 160). Anything to maintain a flock of sheep.

Paramount among sins is the sin of being human. “See how we wallow in flesh and blood” (Augustine, p. 195). It’s the tired, “spirit good; body bad” duality. Tired but ever profitable for religion. When it comes to creating converts, there is nothing quite as effective as telling people that what comes naturally to them, simply by being who they are is sinful; and that the only way to salvation is through the proffered organization.

Perhaps the most dangerous sin is that of heresy. Dangerous to the health of the heretic of course. In his discussion of the Manichean sect, Augustine states “They themselves are truly evil” (Augustine, p. 197). In another passage about them, he says that they “deserved to be spewed forth by a sickened stomach” (Augustine, p. 159). These are comments the saint makes about a sect that he was a part of for nine years. But he has no compassion for them. Dehumanizing the opposition is an excellent way to permit their persecution and destruction. If they’re characterized as vomit, or evil, killing them is okay. This is the foundation of what is called “The Augustinian Consensus,” a euphemism and philosophical justification for persecution. Augustine’s self-hatred regarding his own sin spilled-over onto humanity. It resulted in a millennium of violent persecutions against any individual or group perceived as unrepentant sinners.

This is the true danger of Augustine’s self-loathing. If it was just a case of this narrow, anti-motivational speaker influencing some horrible, small-minded people to hate their humanness as much as he hated his, I’d say that they were getting their just desserts. Unfortunately, these guilty-feeling busybodies never keep it to themselves. You’ll see them invade funerals for AIDS patients so that they can jeer at the bereaved family, or in the courtroom interfering with the private right of a couple to make end-of-life decisions, or in public schools trying to prevent condom distribution. And this is actually progress from the days when they would kill you for your transgressions (unless you’re an abortion provider, and then it’s game on…Dark Ages-style.) I’m not a psych clinician, but I can see the road that this self-hatred and self-denial leads down. And the dead end to that road is not a healthy place for either that individual or our society.

Augustine. The Confessions of St Augustine. Ryan, John K. (trans.) New York: Doubleday, 1960.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Bohemian Paris by Dan Franck. Cynthia Hope Liebow, translator.

Bohemian Paris is a lively portrait of the arts social scene between Montmartre and Montparnasse, from the late 1890’s to the 1930’s. Its chapters are predominately short biographical sketches of the personalities who lived in Paris. Their stories are laced with personal, sentimental and often lurid details of each subject’s life. Artists weave in and out of each other’s biographies, giving a sense of community and atmosphere to the book.

The writing is quite good. Dan Franck has an excellent translator in Cynthia Hope Liebow, who is able to maintain the author’s images with the smooth, informal style of an experienced storyteller. And a story it is, told in a narrative form by an author who has written some fiction. Those seeking hard, empirical historiography will be disappointed.

Sometimes factual reality suffers for the sake of story: “While Kiki and Man Ray were drifting off to sleep on the first page of their love story, a girl of about twenty was pushing open the door of her apartment on the rue Cardinet” (Franck, p. 332). This is a clumsy segue, not a chronological fact. The author also employs conflation as if it were a noble device, when describing a scene: We know that, when Picasso was told that his portrait of Gertrude Stein did not look like her, he responded “she will end up looking like it.” We know that Stein said of Madame Picasso “All she can talk about are three things: hats, perfume and furs.” We know that Braque was upset that his paintings were being blackened near Stein’s hearth. These are old chestnuts. But we can be relatively certain that they did not occur at the same party as expressed in the chapter “An Afternoon on the Rue de Fleurus.” Finally, there is a good deal of hyperbole: Derain “Knew everything there was to know about the literature of his time” (Franck, p. 66). “When [Picasso] was fourteen, his father deposited his own paints and brushes at his son’s feet, giving up an art in which the youngster had already surpassed him” (Picasso’s father was both a professional artist and art professor who did not give up his career at the age of 57)  (Franck, p. 16).

Because of this elevation of story above history, one begins to question some of the book’s claims. I found myself hitting the internet to investigate some of the more dramatic assertions. I was pleased to find that there were no deliberate falsifications. The reader will be amazed at the number of sordid details Franck was able to catalog.

There are undoubtedly times when the serious art lover or historian will be frustrated by the quantity of gossip and the obsession with subjects’ eccentricities. Additionally, there are segments that are tasteless. The author feels it necessary to mention more than once that Kiki of Montparnasse did not wear undergarments. The suicide of Jules Pascin is gratuitously described. Serious study is not a phrase that accurately describes this book.

One consistent problem with Bohemian Paris is that there is so little about the art itself. In a social history of art, one would expect to read more about how the artists influenced each other, what they discussed in terms of theory or technique, etc. Certainly there is some of this, but the author is more concerned with what drugs or lovers these people shared than what influences they shared. More time is spent describing how individuals dressed, rather than how they thought about their work.

To his credit, Franck covers some lesser-known figures of early 20th Century Paris. Some are artists whose biographies are hard to find. More importantly, Franck includes the women of Paris. So few women were accepted in the artistic domain, that it is refreshing to discover their lives and ambitions. Unfortunately, (except for Gertrude Stein) the women are only important in terms of the men with whom they’re sleeping. Even Marie Laurencin, an artist in her own right who sold more paintings than many of the men, is discussed mainly as an appendage of Guillaume Apollinaire.

There is some value, beyond entertainment value, in the dishy social approach Franck chooses. This book is helpful to someone who already knows a good deal about Modern Art history, because it provides so much more information about personal lives and relationships than a traditional text. As a record of friendships, rivalries and social interactions, Bohemian Paris can help connect some dots in terms of social and environmental influence. One can even benefit from the sordid details: Knowing the eccentricities, problems, addictions and obstacles faced by the artist, does lend perspective to his or her work. There is little value in other books’ attempts to depict the artists of this (or any) period as flawless paragons of their profession. Few histories of this culture contain so many personal and environmental details recorded in one place. I would suggest that those new to Art History read a text first; then use this book to make connections and flesh-out the environment in which the creativity of Modern Art occurred. My personal recommendation on the subject of Modern Art is The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes, but that is a subject for a future review.

Franck, Dan & Liebow, Cynthia Hope (translator). Bohemian Paris. New York: Grove Press, 2001.

For review of a book that contains a comprehensive discussion of this time and place in art, see:

For review of a general history on France during this time period, see:

For a discussion of cubism, see:

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Non-Overlapping Magisteria and the Quandary of Public vs Private Thoughts.

Non-Overlapping Magisteria (or NOMA) is a concept propounded by Professor Stephen Jay Gould who was best known as an evolutionary biologist and science historian. In his Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, Gould claimed that “the net of science covers the empirical realm: what the universe is made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria [or teaching authorities] do not overlap” (Gould, p. 274). Professor Gould expresses this idea as a hopeful “resolution of the supposed ‘conflict’ or ‘warfare’ between science and religion” (Gould, p. 274).

Unfortunately Gould ignores that religion, from its very beginnings, was an explanation by superstitious people of “what the universe is made of and why does it work this way.” Our Judeo-Christian belief systems, for example, posit the existence of a monotheistic god, that this god created the Universe, that he created all organic life including humankind and that he infused Homo Sapiens with souls. While rational people may accept that science has pushed religion back from the empirical realm, this does not mean that religion has surrendered the field. The above beliefs are still advanced by Judeo-Christian believers. One may also take exception to the notion that religion addresses moral meaning and value, given the current and historical behavior of dominant religions worldwide, but I wish to maintain the focus of this response on the alleged separation of the realms themselves. Religion has always crossed the boundary between its purported domain and that of science. And if religion continues to invade the scientific realm with irrational positions on the physical world, science will continue to refute religious propositions.

There are people who are rational in most of their lives. They use empirical evidence when purchasing a car, or deciding what to wear when the weather changes. But many of those otherwise empirically-based individuals create within themselves Non-Overlapping Magisteria. Using the mental tools of denial, rationalization and compartmentalization, people are capable of holding any number of conflicting ideas. Many maintain illogical religious beliefs because these beliefs are comforting. As a nurse, I have met many a dying patient. Some of them believed in God and Heaven. There is not a hospital situation in which I would attempt to disillusion any of them of a belief in an afterlife. That would simply be cruel. Additionally, their belief is privately held and affects me not at all. I am a firm advocate of the view that people have a right to their private thoughts, regardless of whether those thoughts are superstitions or rational ideas.

People also have a right to express their ideas or beliefs publicly. But once those thoughts enter the public sphere, they are open to public comment. At that point, the author of the stated idea doesn’t get to say “these are my personal beliefs/ideas; you have no right to challenge them.” One has the right to express their personal views publicly, and the public has a right to agree or disagree. Stephen Jay Gould had personal motives as a self-described “agnostic” (Gould, p. 270), and as a scientist. He wanted peace between the two systems he held dear. Like many religious/spiritual people in denial, he overlooked that his NOMA theory was flawed, which allowed his spiritual/religious fantasy bubble to remain unpopped. He died on May 20, 2002. Had I been his nurse, I would have encouraged the comfort he obtained from his beliefs. It is in this more public forum that I examine NOMA and find it wanting.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms. New York: Harmony Books, 1998.